Acculturation refers to the adaptation process experienced by individuals or groups when settling into an unfamiliar culture. Whereas some migrating groups may seek to integrate with the host culture, others may choose to maintain their cultural roots and separate themselves from the “new” dominant culture. In a world where both temporary and permanent migration continue to increase it is vital to understand the challenges faced by such individuals and the strategies they employ to survive. Whereas previously migrating groups were not considered as viable segments to target with products and services, increasing immigrant numbers have alerted marketers to the potential profitability of these groups.
Since the term acculturation was first formally used by Robert E. Park in 1928 to describe the adaptation of immigrants, the earliest attempts at understanding the acculturation process were conducted in the fields of anthropology and sociology. However, since the 1980s business researchers have shown greater interest in the concept in light of the increasing market value of various immigrant groups. As many of the most prominent acculturation researchers were located in North America, empirical work concentrated on the large numbers of Hispanic immigrants who sought to settle in the United States. Today, the emphasis of most research is still on groups moving away from lesser-developed nations, though researchers have broadened their focus to encapsulate a wider array of migrating groups, including Chinese workers moving to Australasia, Eastern Europeans fleeing their home nations due to civil war, and Italians migrating to Canada.
In the early 1900s the U.S. Immigration Commission was established in response to growing public fears that U.S. culture was under threat from the increasing number and variety of immigrant groups. This uncertainty as to the role of immigrants in U.S. society led to the “melting pot model” (discussed below), which ensured that all immigrants relinquished their previous cultural traits and instead assimilated into everyday U.S. life. This policy led to the term assimilation becoming the commonly used term instead of acculturation. Indeed, terms such as cultural interpenetration and ethnic identity have also been used in studies to address the same process. This myriad of terms that essentially cover similar issues have been thought to have slowed down researchers’ attempts to truly understand the process.
Acculturation typically occurs when two or more cultures are brought into continuous, firsthand contact (be it on an enforced or voluntary basis). The triggers for such cross-cultural interaction have included political unrest between nations, invasion, or even enslavement. More recently, acculturation has also been triggered by international trade agreements, educational or missionary activity, and transnational media. Acculturating groups face a number of obstacles in adapting to a new way of life and these can be particularly challenging in the early stages of their acculturation. Depending on the migrating group, these problems can include language difficulties, financial hardship, homesickness, loneliness, discrimination, and in some cases outright racial abuse. Historically, acculturation has been seen to be a fourstep process that includes both positive and negative emotions for an immigrant:
- Honeymoon: Soon after migration, the immigrant enjoys a fascination with the host culture, where there is little firsthand contact or conflict.
- Rejection: In time, the immigrant may feel some homesickness and start to unfavorably compare the host culture with their previous life. This can result in negative and aggressive attitudes to their new home.
- Tolerance: In time, the intensity of these emotions will lessen and the immigrant will begin to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to survive in the new environment.
- Integration: The immigrant develops a confidence in the new culture, conflict decreases, and the new home becomes “another way of life.”
Although each individual’s experiences will vary, the above process does provide insight into the sorts of emotions experienced by immigrants upon arrival in an unfamiliar culture. The following discussion focuses on two models that describe strategies employed by immigrants to deal with the process.
The Melting Pot Model
Particularly in Western societies, initial reactions to immigrant groups have been very cautious. It was often unclear why such groups had moved to another society and, as a result, they were considered a threat not only by senior politicians but also the general population. In order to ensure that the cultural values of the dominant society were maintained, immigrants were often given no choice but to assimilate into society and lose all connections with their home country. This process became widely known as assimilation or the melting pot model, and was the dominant school of acculturative thought until as recently as the 1960s.
Although such an approach provided security for the host culture, it also meant that immigrants were not contributing to the cultural profile of the country. Immigrants were often considered the underclass of that particular society, and were largely confined to lower-grade employment and ignored by permanent residents. Immigrants were given no formal assistance in how to assimilate, and those who attempted to “integrate” by combining their previous cultural traits with those of the dominant society were deemed to be marginal and faced further sanctions from society.
A common outcome of the assimilation process was “overshooting”: in their desperation to become members of the dominant culture, immigrants adopt extreme, overt behaviors they have observed from permanent residents. However, such behaviors were often perceived as artificial and failed to earn the acceptance of the host population.
Given the ethnocentric nature of the melting pot model, it is not surprising that social scientists began to criticize this approach from the 1960s. It has been suggested that as migrating groups became a more common phenomenon, assimilation became a less likely outcome of the acculturation process. Instead, immigrants started to show an increased willingness to retain some if not all of their original culture, particularly in countries such as Canada that are known for their culturally pluralist policies.
The Bi-Dimensional Model
In response to the growing criticism of the melting pot model, social scientists began to search for an alternative acculturation framework that accepted that assimilation was not the only strategy available to immigrants. In 1980 John W. Berry suggested that the choice of an immigrant’s acculturation strategy or style could be determined by two questions: first, does the immigrant wish to retain elements of their original culture, and second, are relationships with the host culture to be developed? The answers to these questions led to the development of four acculturation styles that are widely regarded as the most comprehensive means of understanding the acculturation process:
- Assimilation: The traditional acculturation view that immigrants must relinquish their original cultural traits is now regarded as one potential option available to immigrants. This may remain a common outcome of the acculturation process in more mono-cultural societies.
- Integration: Whereas previously immigrants who attempted to combine cultures were regarded as marginal, this bicultural approach to acculturation is now regarded as the most suitable way for an immigrant to adapt. This is characterized by an attempt to forge friendships with members of various cultures, and may result in traits of the immigrant group becoming part of the dominant society’s culture.
- Separation: The polar opposite of the assimilation outcome is when the immigrant shows no desire to become part of the host culture and instead retains all elements of their previous culture. This can lead to the development of separate cultural communities and a degree of distance being maintained from the dominant culture, which may result in conflict between various cultural groups.
- Marginalization: A previously ignored outcome of the acculturation process is when individuals become alienated by the whole experience, fail to integrate with the dominant society, and at the same time lose all links with their original culture. This is regarded as the most psychologically damaging acculturation outcome and may be the result of a failed attempt to integrate or assimilate.
This bi-dimensional model offers a number of potential acculturation outcomes and accepts that immigrants may not wish to simply assimilate. More recent research has identified integration as the best outcome in terms of lower stress levels; however, separation has become a particularly common strategy for immigrants in the United Kingdom and the United States.
A number of determinants are relevant in which of the above acculturation strategies are adopted by immigrants. In terms of demographic factors, it has been shown that second-generation immigrants are most likely to integrate: they will be encouraged to maintain their cultural heritage by family at home, but will have regular contact with the host culture through school and friendship networks. In general, later generations are more likely to become involved with the host culture, although this may be a source of interfamily conflict with older generations. In addition, it is expected that younger, better-educated immigrants will show a greater propensity to integrate into dominant society, largely because they will have greater opportunities to interact with members of other cultures.
Another key issue in acculturation is the language ability of the immigrant. As communication is the primary means by which different cultures interact, those with stronger language skills will find it easier to forge new relationships. An inability to speak the host culture language can result in difficulties in finding employment, being a consumer, and even dealing with the country’s welfare system.
The triggers of the acculturation process are also of particular relevance here; if the immigrants have been forced into a new environment because of war or political unrest, this will reduce their desire to assimilate or integrate. However, for those who are moving to another culture for personal reasons (for example, career or educational advancement) this may result in a heightened desire to understand and become involved with the host culture.
The level of cultural distance between the two cultures in question can also be significant in the acculturation process. For example, Chinese immigrants moving to the United Kingdom are more likely to struggle moving from a collectivist to an individualist culture. In some situations, the presence of racial prejudice may also act as a barrier to acculturation: The bi-dimensional model discussed above assumes that the host culture allows the immigrant to choose their preferred acculturation strategy. In reality, the host culture may well impose integration (in the case of a pluralist nation) or even separation if a significant level of discrimination exists.
As well as posing obvious challenges for the migrating groups, acculturation can also put pressures on various elements of the host culture: A substantial number of immigrants can place pressure on public services such as schools, hospitals, and other local amenities. Also, local authorities can face difficulties housing immigrants, and a lack of skills means that many struggle to find employment and depend on the welfare state. National governments have to find a delicate balance between welcoming a culturally diverse society while at the same time implementing measures to ensure such immigration does not cause unrest among the general population.
- Flannery, S. Reise, and J. Yu, “An Empirical Comparison of Acculturation Models,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, (v.27, 8, 2001);
- Maldonado and P. Tansuhaj, “Transition Challenges in Consumer Acculturation: Role Destabilisation and Changes in Symbolic Consumption,” Advances in Consumer Research, (v.26/1, 1999);
- Novas, M. Garcia, J. Sanchez, A. Rojas, P. Pumares, and J. Fernandez, “Relative Acculturation Extended Model (RAEM): New Contributions with Regards to the Study of Acculturation,” International Journal of Intercultural Relations (v.29, 2005);
- Padilla, ed., Acculturation: Theory, Models and Some New Findings (Westview Press, 1980).
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